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Poetic Past

28 September 2017 by Liz

people looking at poetry display in museum

Discover the Liverpool poets in our Wondrous Place gallery. Image © Dave Jones

“Much have I trowelled in the realms of holes”
Liz (after John Keats!)

As we celebrate National Poetry Day it occurs to me that archaeology is a discipline which is romanticised and mused-upon by poets.

An archaeologist is the subject of Seigfreid Sassoon’s poem ‘Early Chronology’, “He guided us through scientific spaces / Of excavated History”. The archaeologist and his eccentric approaches to understanding the past through objects is the engaging subject of that poem.

Several poets use themes from the past as ways to explore new characters and new perspectives: from Seamus Heaney’s descriptions of the discoveries of bog bodies, “but now he lies / perfected in my memory”; to Robert Graves bringing his interest in classics to his poetry: “Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon / The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon”; to Josiah Wedgwood thinking himself into the mind of a Roman soldier: “I fight because the world would not have it otherwise / The world could not stand to have one less of me”.

Perhaps it would help us, as archaeologists, to think ourselves into the perspective of the people from the past whose objects we’re connecting with: the Rainford potter, the Lunt Meadows hunter gatherer, or a Liverpool waterfront docker.

W.H. Auden gave his last poem entirely over to the subject of archaeology, it begins:

Archaeology – W. H. Auden

The archaeologist’s spade
delves into dwellings
vacancied long ago,

unearthing evidence
of life-ways no one
would dream of leading now,

concerning which he has not much
to say that he can prove:
the lucky man!

Yes, we are lucky to be able to study the past, and we’re lucky to have people to express our fascination with ancient times as beautifully as poets!

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